Why eating in the city can be a minefield

I’m always thinking about my next meal, but despite wanting to make the green choice, finding and eating sustainable food in the city isn’t easy.

LogoThis article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city.

Out of all my lovely corner shops, greengrocers and independents in south London, none of them sell parmesan. So last night I had to reluctantly venture into a supermarket, somewhere I usually try to avoid in place of buying from local shops. But did I just pop in for my cheese and leave? No, I also bought my lemon and parsley, betraying my favourite quirky greengrocer-fishmonger.

This sums up my daily conflict when trying to navigate food choices in the city; I know I should try and buy local, organic, plastic free. But the conflicting pressures of time and convenience often weigh in to persuade me otherwise.

I love food. I study it, write about it and, of course, eat it. I’m always thinking about where my next meal is coming from, but I find that it can also be a source of anxiety and a constant trade-off. Selfishly, as a result, I often had myself in mind when researching our new Wicked Leeks series on Sustainable Cities, wanting to ease my mind about the implicit judgements I make about the impacts of food.

Even the word sustainable seems to have lost its meaning. We are faced with a barrage of products claiming sustainable this, sustainable that. And that’s where the conflict and confusion may lie; sustainability has many different dimensions and it’s subject to interpretation depending on who you speak to.

It’s easy to confine the definition to simply how much the food we eat harms the environment, for example, but is it also fair for people and enabling workers to earn a decent wage? Does it contribute to the local economy and give back to the community? Does it challenge the status quo and connect to wider social issues? Where does culture fit into the conversation?

Corner shop
Sustainable food can also cover fair pay, local economy and wider issues of social justice. 

Our ultimate guide on how to find sustainable food in the city will start to untangle these different aspects and, hopefully, help to make the shift to sustainable eating more interesting, more doable and less hassle.

In the city, food is often a moment of joy in the day and at its best, can transport us to different places and link us to something bigger than ourselves. So beyond avoiding choice-anxiety, this series is about showing how much more we can get out of eating by broadening our horizons and thinking about the people who grow, produce, distribute and sell our food.

Food also very often tells a tale beyond mere sustenance. For example, what can a fruit and veg wholesale market tell us about the history of the city and the evolution of our food system? I visited New Covent Garden Market to meet some of the characters behind a unique food history, and perhaps even future, of London.

What else does the future of food in the city hold? New innovations in vertical farming and a burgeoning interest in community gardens is bringing food closer to urban centres, in very distinct ways. Shiny tech solutions might seem appealing but there is also a growing movement seeing the power in connecting with people and communities.

Eating out is one of, if not the biggest, appeals of living in the city, and experiencing diverse culinary traditions and exciting chefs can inspire us in our own cooking. But sustainable restaurants can often be expensive and feel exclusive, so we’ll also be listing some of the greenest places to eat out on a budget as well as hearing from chefs on what to look for on menus.

We hope that this series will be a gateway for exploring and enjoying sustainable food with a different lens, whether you live in the city or just visit for the weekend. Join the conversation with your tips for eating in the city in the comments section, or follow us on social media @wickedleeksmag.

7 Comments

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  1. It often feels very lonely trying to do the right thing, surrounded by family and friends who can’t understand why you don’t just get a Tesco delivery. Also, eating out, I recently plucked up the courage to ask if the salmon in an expensive local hotel was farmed… of course it was. I’m glad I asked; we need to be demanding more but it’s daunting when you’re the only one asking! Keep inspiring us with these fabulous articles! Thank you WickedLeeks 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your message Natz, really glad you’re enjoying the series. I know this feeling, easy to get demoralised. What helps you keep to your values despite being surrounded by people who struggle to understand?

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  2. What keeps me going? Hope… that I can lead change by example. Love… for the planet, and my fellow humans. And RAGE… quite a lot of rage at how through the ways that our country is run we have become dependent on convenience and reluctant to form strong communities. Articles like those from WickedLeeks and Resurgence help normalise the good, which balances out the rage.

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    1. I admire those who can channel their rage productively – I find that it leads me to despair and frustration more than positive action. Have you got any like-minded communities that you can lean on for support?

      This subject came up today, what is more impactful – stories that are positive but maybe give us a distorted but hopeful image of the world, or investigative stories that expose the harsh realities but might get more people to realise the urgency of the situation?

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  3. Support networks are everywhere; just don’t expect everything in one place. One friend may be totally up with ethical clothing brands, but wrapped up in consumerism. Another might organise community events but sources the food from Tesco. Another might start a seed swap at the allotment but uses pesticide on their plot. Same goes for community groups – you’ve got to find your tribes; don’t expect everything from one.

    Impact-wise, I think there is a need for both – I’ve recently discovered WaterBear but my husband refuses to watch the “depressing” looking films. I think you need a mix of education and positivity, otherwise people switch off.

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    1. Really insightful comment Natz about how we all have areas we are more or less engaged with/aware of, and the need for something positive to move toward for motivation.

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    2. Really interesting point Natz – it’s a nice analogy for people and friends in general – we all have our causes. I think the great thing about food is that it’s a gateway for discussing, well, pretty much everything. How did you go about finding these support networks in the city?

      This is true – I feel like we all need some positivity to keep us going when, as you say, it can feel lonely otherwise. But it always seems like it’s outrage that gets more publicity and attention! Is this human nature? Jack

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